EP 15: Women at work, with Sandra D’Souza.

The United Nations pledged to remove all obstacles to gender equality and the empowerment and advancement of women. Today, 25-years later, only a handful of businesses have achieved the UN’s goal. Sandra D’Souza, CEO and founder of Ellect, has developed a model to encourage and reward all size businesses to bridge the gender gap and achieve diversity, equity, and inclusion. Sandra chats about what inspired her and the processes on With, Not For.

More information on Sandra and her work can be found at Sandra’s site.


Twenty-five years ago, the United Nations pledged to remove all obstacles to gender equality and to the advancement and empowerment of women. Yet, in 2022, the Global Gender Gap Report projected that, at our current rate of progress, it will take – and wait for it – 132 years to reach gender parity globally. Gender equality affects people of all ages and backgrounds, women, men, trans and gender diverse people, children, and families. So what can we do to reverse this alarming trend?

Welcome to With, Not For. A podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design. My name is Manisha Amin, speaking to you from the lands of the Gadigal people here in Sydney, Australia. My guest today is Sandra D’Souza, founder and CEO of Ellect, helping businesses achieve diversity, equality and inclusion. Welcome, Sandra and thank you so much for joining us today.

Sandra: Hi Manisha. Thank you for having me on your show today.

Manisha: It’s an absolute pleasure. You know, Sandra, I’m really interested to hear a bit about your journey because you’ve advocated for women’s rights since you were a teenager. Is that right?

Sandra: Yes, that’s right. I was the oldest of three girls and I went to a Catholic girls school run by nuns, which were all very smart young women in their – oblivious to any gender issues. But it was not until my family emigrated from Hong Kong to Canberra, and in Canberra I went to a co-ed school, that’s when you start hearing about what girls can do and what girls can’t do. Well, actually, most of the time it’s what girls can’t do.

I had this friend who was very much – she’s just basically been an activist. I think she was naturally in that way. We were hanging out one summer and she started pointing out the stereotypes of women and men roles in media. In ads, for example, you’d see a housewife with an apron and so you’d just stereotype her and that’s the role. She pointed out these things and, I guess, ever since then, on a personal level or what I see in media, I’ve already can see the – I want to call it discrepancies of what the media projects and what men and women can do.

Manisha: That’s really interesting. How old were you at the time?

Sandra: I was 15 at the time. It was around year nine, year 10. In Canberra, you finish high school and you go to college and – I don’t know, it feels like because friendships are changing, I was hanging out more with friends and she was pointing it out. I was very impressionable at that age too. She was the same age as me but she was super smart.

Manisha: Did that change your career trajectory or was it something you just thought about?

Sandra: I’ve always thought I’ll end up being a lawyer or an actress when I was a kid.

Manisha: Right.

Sandra: And, yes, I guess naturally, being the oldest, I’m always sticking up for friends, which, if I see any injustice or something that I don’t think that they can defend themselves. Yes, I was very feisty at that age. I didn’t get into law school or get a degree in – I didn’t go into NIDA because I already saw the lack of diversity in actors and it’s hard enough as it is. I just knew I’ll just go into university and I went into business instead.

Manisha: And so then how did you – it’s funny that you say that you wanted to be an actor or a lawyer and you’re one of the most interesting and exciting entrepreneurs I know. It seems to me that that actually encompasses both of those things, right? Your sense of justice as well as your flair for business and doing the right thing. How does that relate to – take us on that journey that led you to Ellect.Biz and starting up this new venture, which is not so new now, right?

Sandra: No, I know. As you know me in the past, aside from my corporate career and all that, I had an international digital marketing agency. Around 2017, the #MeToo campaign, I think, around that time, 2017 I noticed a few things. It was around the time of the #MeToo campaign and around that time is when I was having conversations with men who basically at the end of a coffee meeting, you know, when we get the business aside, wanted to know, “Hey, I don’t understand this #MeToo campaign. Why are women so angry?” And that sort of thing.

I just learned to have conversations, learned to listen to their views, share my views, and I felt that the time was right to have a business in gender equality. What that looked like, I didn’t know. I didn’t want it to be a charity or a not-for-profit, as I could see the challenges with that. Also, around the time social entrepreneurship was merging purpose-driven business, that sort of thing. I spent the first year really putting together a business model of how to create a purpose-driven business, creating impacts in gender equality and so that’s how it started.

Manisha: What does Ellect actually do?

Sandra: Now fast forward to where it is now from all the learnings and Covid obviously threw a spanner in the works. With Ellect, we have an accreditation badge, which basically the businesses need to tick off at least three of the four achievements. Have a least one woman CEO or CFO, have a woman board chair, at least 25% of women on boards and at least 25% of women in the senior leadership team. Those are the four achievements and, if they have at least three, they’re eligible for a digital badge called Ellect Star and that is acknowledging their achievement in gender equality and business leadership.

That’s what we offer. We have a digital badge. It’s protected by blockchain. They need to review it every 12 months and we’ve kept the criteria very straightforward and clear because we didn’t want any ambiguity. You either have achieved it or you haven’t.

Manisha: It seems like a very practical way of approaching the challenge.

Sandra: There are various ways of what people are trying to achieve and what I’ve seen time and time again is the implementation of policies, procedures, activities and encouraging women to a certain level, like up to middle management. What we don’t see is seeing women being represented in boards, or in the senior leadership team or having a woman CEO.

This all came out of because we were going through all the companies on the Australian Stock Exchange and we did the same with NASDAQ and we’re working on the London Stock Exchange. We went through all of them, rated them with the publicly available information on all of those four items. At the time, you tell me, Manisha, maybe you already know the answer to this but –

Manisha: I probably don’t. [Laughs]

Sandra: Well, out of 2,100 companies and almost 9,000 in NASDAQ, how many companies do you think – let’s start of with ASX, have scored three or more points?

Manisha: Oh, my goodness. I’m going to go for five per cent?

Sandra: It’s below five per cent. Ninety eight. Ninety eight companies out of over 2,100 and in NASDAQ it was 204 companies out of almost 9,000.

Manisha: I’m really interested how many of them actually even know that this is an issue? Was it hard to find the numbers?

Sandra: It wasn’t hard to find because with listed companies a lot of the information is shown publicly. What was disappointing is how low the numbers are. I know that there’s quite a bit of work focusing on women on boards. There’s some work around leadership teams. But there’s just not enough women CEOs or even women board chairs or women CFOs. But if we combine it all, the numbers are really low.

Manisha: Right.

Sandra: I don’t think it’s really that hard. We wanted it to be like 40–60% range, which is the ideal range, but we brought it down to 25% because otherwise there’d be nobody who would be qualified for Ellect Stars.

Manisha: Did you find that there’s a difference when we’re talking about companies that are listed versus companies that aren’t? Small enterprises versus larger enterprises. Is there a difference there?

Sandra: That sort of data is not available, is not easy to find unless I get a whole bunch of companies to research. However, since we launched Ellect Stars, we’ve had small businesses who say, “We’re interested. We want to show our commitment to gender equality.” That has allowed us to launch a spin off, so to speak, called the Ellect Small Business Star.

They have one of two criteria and that is at least 25% of women on the top level leadership team or the second criteria is throughout the whole organisation and they just need to achieve one out of the two.

Manisha: How do you find that? That’s really interesting that small businesses are coming to you whereas you’re going to larger organisations. I wonder if that says something also about the sorts of roles that women are able to get and also where the power and control sits in these organisations.

Sandra: Yes, I mean, look, with the larger companies there is – especially the listed companies as you’ve heard of ESG. There is certainly a push to have metrics being achieved for the purpose of ESG. There’s a lot of focus around environmental, and some on the social, but certainly I see that’s where the push is coming – but they’re working their way around it.

The small business is just surprising but it also feels that it’s easier for small business to really show the values that they believe in and incorporate that into their business.

Manisha: And for people who don’t know what the ESG is?

Sandra: ESG stands for Environmental Social Governance. They are the metrics that now – it’s mandatory in some countries for companies to, when they report on the financial performance, they also need to report the metrics around ESG. They need to report metrics of what they’re doing around the environment, what they’re doing around social and what they’re doing around governance.

This has been one of the fastest movements globally because of funds and pushing to say that we only want to invest in companies who are actually caring for our environment for the people and making sure that they implement governance in their business. So companies have been scrambling for that. In Europe over the last couple of years or so have mandated the reporting and in U.S., I believe, that it’s been going through Congress and soon it will be also a mandatory requirement and we’ll see that cascading effect throughout the world.

Manisha: It’s really interesting how that social push and pull kind of comes in when we think about the system that conspires for equality and against equality as well and how these awards and badges and micro-credentials can actually help make it more explicit.

Sandra: Yes.

Manisha: I’m really interested in how it works on the ground when you’re working with organisations. Have you seen a change in the way they think about gender equality when it comes to actually becoming an Ellect Star or in terms of how they actually reach those targets? Because, as you said, there are so many companies that are so far away from those targets, which seem quite low when we think about the differences of genders that we have.

Sandra: Yes, what I’ve seen, and what’s been nice to see, is that sense of – very proud of having Ellect Stars and sharing in the way that they feel that it’s something they truly believe in and they’ve shown the commitment. When they were awarded the Ellect Star badge, you feel and they discuss about that sense of proudness around it. That was really nice to see.

Manisha: Sandra, I know that you’re in the process of putting a book together that will be coming out next year after you’ve interviewed some of those 99 companies that are actually eligible for Ellect Stars. What are some of the findings or the initial insights that you have from those organisations?

Sandra: Out of the 98 companies, I didn’t get to all of them, but the ones that I did interview, I’ve picked 11 to be in the book. What’s been really interesting to see and, having spoken to all of them, is – and that will give away the answer to the book because I just want people to realise that you can achieve gender equality and diversity if you want to do it.

It didn’t matter with the CEOs whether they were from large companies or a startup mining companies or companies with small cap. It didn’t matter if they were a founding CEO or if they were a CEO that was recruited in, whether they have 20 employees or 8,000 employees. It’s just the commitment to diversity came from the top, it came from them.

Manisha: Right.

Sandra: And how they went about pushing for it. There are ways and approaches. They all have slightly different ways and also they acknowledged that it’s not an easy thing to do, especially those in the male dominated industry. The commonality across all of them is really their commitment and their push for it to happen and they will find ways to make it happen.

Manisha: That’s really fascinating, especially when it feels a bit like the Catch-22 then, right? The leaders that actually promote gender equality espouse it within their organisations but, in fact, if they don’t exist, then that doesn’t happen. It is really important to make sure that we have diversity and genders right up that top end of the spectrum there.

Sandra: It is, it’s actually, like I said, they’re a commitment to diversity and sustainability. It’s what was their focus and out of that they achieved gender balance in the senior leadership team. What I’ve heard and spoken to outside of the CEOs that I’ve spoken to who were eligible for Ellect Stars, I do talk to a lot of other decision makers. You sense there is that commitment to having diversity at the junior levels, at recruitment, all the way through the organisation. But when it comes to the top, it’s still all white, middle-aged men. And they’ll have their reasons – sorry, go on.

Manisha: I was going to say, so what do you think happens?

Sandra: I think they know that they need to be in that space, they know that they need to show that they have diversity and having HR and being the push and being the champion for it. I do believe a lot of them suffer from unconscious bias and having diversity in the leadership team or in the board of directors is something that they may not necessarily deep down believe in that and don’t necessarily push for it. It is hard and they’ll find various excuses. The various excuses is like, “Oh, we can’t find the women candidates.” “Women don’t apply.” “They don’t have the skillset”, or “They’re not qualified.” “We just can’t find them”, or “They’re not interested.” It’s just various reasons, they’re an easy way out.

But, seriously, you can’t tell me that there are not enough women candidates and there are ways of how you go approaching them. What’s in the book, well, you’ll read about is the ways of how they’ve gone about in being inclusive, realising that you can’t do a stock standard way of just how we normally operate in corporation to just be inclusive. You need to make necessary changes within the organisation to attract and to retain diversity of high calibre too.

Manisha: Absolutely. When we think about that and the trends that you’re seeing, we spoke at the beginning of this podcast about the gap in terms of gender parity, which, you know, we’re going backwards there. Hopefully we will stop going backwards but what are some of the trends that you’re seeing in your work on a practical level in terms of inclusion? You’ve spoken obviously about the difference between parity at difference levels, is there anything else that you’re seeing that it’s worth calling out?

Sandra: I think over the years, what I’m seeing is, for example, like university graduates. We’re seeing women and men graduating from universities at the undergrad level are pretty much even. You know, you’ve got parity there. Then once they enter the workforce at graduate level, that part generally is – the opportunities are fairly equal. I am generalising because it does vary a little bit for industry and industry.

Manisha: Absolutely.

Sandra: But then what you see is, as men and woman progress their careers, you see the gaps, whether it’s gender pay gap, whether it’s opportunities, and then you throw in diverse background, the numbers are a lot lower, and then if you – the gaps wider and if you throw in around the age where they’re having children, the gaps even widen and then, as you see the more and more senior team, it’s – the gaps are massive. That hasn’t changed at all.

There is certainly more women on boards than before. There is certainly more conversation, more discussion, and there’s better tracking, everybody tracking these sort of metrics. But I’m afraid to say, in 2022, women CEOs are still – they’re a rare breed. Same within the leadership team.

Manisha: It’s interesting when we’re talking about women generally, not women of colour. Women who have disability. All of those other intersectional areas.

Sandra: Yes.

Manisha: We’re just talking about women generally.

Sandra: Just women, yes. And, look, I want to see all of those diversity also being included and in the work I’m doing but it’s almost like I had to really broaden the definition because we also have the LGBTQ, the gender part has – there is a greater range of definition. I don’t want to be excluding anyone and, like I said, with the CEOs, their focus wasn’t just even men or women, it was about diversity and it was about sustainability and then that has cascaded through those values to bring in the diversity and brought in women in senior roles.

Yes, I’m taking a very – I like to call it baby step and just be very clear, very – it’s not niche, but just very clear, because women represent 50% of the population. If somebody says that’s niche, I’ll just say, “Well, it’s not.” [Laughs] How do we make sure that we have that equal participation? And that’s the focus of Ellect Stars, is to bring visibility to that and actually calling out companies. If you look at companies and you see the lack of diversity in their boards and in their senior leadership team and people are saying, “Where is the Ellect Star on your –” or “Do you own an Ellect Star as a company?” Then I feel like my job is done, or getting there, because I’m creating that awareness and that push that there is a need for diversity at that level.

Manisha: It’s interesting because you’re really focusing on the awareness side and you’re leaving it up to the organisations to work out how they’re going to get there themselves.

Sandra: Yes. There are lots of amazing companies who are doing training, they have software, they have consultation. We’re actually looking at doing a little bit of that potentially. I didn’t really want to create a consulting company but certainly there are requests now for us to run workshops, to run mentoring, to run training, and we want to do it at a point of – to really help them and not just be a consultant and say, “Here, this is what you need to do and we don’t care whether you achieve that or not.”

Manisha: Right.

Sandra: By the way, I’m not staying consultants do that, especially in the DI space, but it can be quite frustrating when it’s been tokenistic or what I call, “Pink washing.” We are being very selective with who we want to work, we’re actually committed to wanting to do it and they’re just struggling a little bit or they need tools to help them being able to achieve. What is in the book is really one of those tools. It’s a guide for organisations and then we want to build up now more tools because of that.

Manisha: Sandra, a last question for you. What, from a personal perspective, is one thing you would change? What’s the one thing you think, “Man, if they only asked someone like me –” It’s funny I used the word man there too, hey?

Sandra: [Laughs]

Manisha: “– but if they only asked someone like me, this would be designed better.”

Sandra: Yes. I could think of many things, Manisha. I would like to see more diversity in media, especially in TV shows, in reality shows. If you look at it, I guess my eyes are still picking up, like where are the people, where are the diversity and which shows have them, which shows don’t? Because when people see them on TV, on the internet, on YouTube, the more and more we see diversity, the more we get used to it that we just have different colours everywhere, men and women doing things and men also in roles that are not traditional. That ties in with the work that I’m doing.

I wanted also – would love if somebody asked me how to have inclusiveness with disability access because I have a daughter in a wheelchair. When we went to Whistler and it was so accessible for a ski resort. It was so accessible that we just felt that we could go anywhere, wander anywhere, go to any restaurant and just be part of what all the crowds are doing, whatever the facilities and just really enjoy. So if somebody wants to ask me, “Hey, can you have a look and see whether this is inclusive space?” That, I would love to be asked for my input.

Manisha: Look, thank you so much, Sandra. It’s been wonderful having you. Thank you for your time and sharing your story.

Sandra: Thank you, Manisha, for the show and thanks again for inviting me.

Manisha: And thank you, everyone, for listening and being with us here on With, Not For. If you’d like to learn more about how you can make your world more inclusive, contact us on www.cfid.org.au, see the show notes, or subscribe to our newsletter where we’ll make sure that we let you know when Sandra’s book actually comes out as well. Until next time, this is Manisha Amin for Centre for Inclusive Design.